I have deliberately refrained from discussing many matters of style in this book, because I feel that writing style is a highly personal and subjective issue. Frankly, although I have found a style that works for me, I have no interest in trying to impress that upon other writers. I like to see people develop their own, authentic voices, and there is no other way to do this than to practice endlessly. Accept criticism when it is offered in the spirit of enlightenment, ignore it when it is offered in the spirit of negativity, and have the wisdom to know the difference.
In general, I would recommend the same things just about every other teacher of writing has ever said: try to use fewer words rather than many, and avoid all filler words; strive to write shorter sentences, not longer ones; try to write in a natural tone, rather than a forced, inflated voice; pay attention to the internal logic of your story; use imagery and metaphor in your work in order to bring it to life; remember to use humor from time to time; when writing dialogue, try to write the way people actually speak; and, though this ought to go without saying, you should master the basic rules of grammar, syntax, and punctuation.
You can learn a great deal about your own voice by finding out what it isn’t, too. When I was a student at Emerson College, a teacher of mine made us rewrite passages from certain well-known books, substituting the nouns but keeping the verbs and the sentence structure. At first, I rebelled mightily against this. What possible good could it do? I demanded to know. The answer to that became apparent rather quickly. It was really no different than a dancing student copying the moves of her instructor. Try it yourself. Pick a page from your favorite book and copy it–by hand, preferably, since we’re really going back to basics here. Change the names. Change the setting. Keep the flow the same, and keep the same word order. That’s important. How does it feel to be doing this? How does it feel when you’re finished and re-reading it, seeing your own thoughts dressed in the skin of a master? You may love it. You may hate it. You’ll have to trust me here: doing this exercise will help make you a better writer.
The fact is, there are a thousand things you can do to improve your style. There have been endless books written on the subject. There are thousands of websites by thousands of teachers, all purporting to hold the answers. Maybe some of them do. I wouldn’t know. The only books I’ve ever read on writing are The Elements of Style by Strunk and White, and Writing Down The Bones by Natalie Goldberg. It’s not that I’ve disdained other works by other writers; it’s that I’ve simply been too busy writing.
I will say that I’ve noticed what I can only call a disturbing trend among certain selfpublished authors who not only seem to feel that attention to style is unimportant, but who actually express outright disdain for the practice of taking one’s time. “It doesn’t matter,” they say. “The most important thing is just telling the story. People will know what you mean. You can always go back and fix it later.” Not only is this incorrect (for it’s often in the refining of style that story is fleshed out), but I feel this is a huge mistake that it will come back to haunt them. I also believe it’s to the detriment of our literature, our society, and our culture. If you intend to contribute something to the body of written work, you owe it to the rest of us to make sure it’s as good as you can make it. It should not be just good enough. Many authors today regard themselves as producers of products rather than artists, and they think of their words as content rather than an artistic medium. If that’s their choice, that’s fine, but they need to remember they can’t have it both ways.
I have written several articles on the craft of writing, all of which are now available for free on my website.
“Writing Secrets of the Ancient Greeks” is about how the secrets of excellent storytelling have been available for 2,500 years: http://williamkowalski.com/creative-writing-tips/ articles/how-aristotle-can-help-you-become-a-better-writer/
“Returning To The Right Foot” is about the single most important piece of writing advice I’ve ever been given: http://williamkowalski.com/creative-writing-tips/articles/returningto-the-right-foot/
“Understanding Character Development” http://williamkowalski.com/creative-writingtips/articles/understanding-character-development/
“Using Subtle Conflict To Strengthen Your Stories” http://williamkowalski.com/creativewriting-tips/articles/using-conflict-to-strengthen-stories/
And finally, a piece that addresses an all-too-common error in this age of instant publishing, called “When Is Your Novel Ready To Submit?” http://williamkowalski.com/ creative-writing-tips/articles/when-is-your-novel-ready-to-submit/
I hope some of you find this little book marginally helpful. I will likely fiddle with it constantly, as is my habit–adding a comma here, removing a space there, putting in a new paragraph when an idea occurs to me. This is a luxury that authors of fiction typically don’t have. I will occasionally replace the whole manuscript with the newest version when these changes add up to something significant.
Just remember this: a writer is someone who writes. That’s the only rule of writing that’s non-negotiable. Everything else is subject to interpretation.
Kowalski’s latest work, THE BEST POLISH RESTAURANT IN BUFFALO is now underway due to fans’ crowd funding. HTTPS://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1754449570/the-best-polish-restaurant-in-buffalo-help-publish/
Learn more about William Kowalski at https://www.williamkowalski.com
Read the first article in this series: The Business of Publishing.